Flights sent to assess damage to Tonga after volcanic eruption

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand – New Zealand and Australia were able to send military surveillance flights to Tonga on Monday to assess the damage caused by a huge underwater volcanic eruption in the Pacific island nation.

A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented previous flights. New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, on a military transport plane on Tuesday.

Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the only undersea fiber optic cable that connects the island nation to the rest of the world said it was likely severed during the eruption and repairs could take weeks.

The loss of cable prevents most Tongans from using the internet or making phone calls overseas. Those who succeeded in delivering messages described their country as resembling a lunar landscape as they began to cleanse themselves of tsunami waves and volcanic ash fall.

Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) crashed into Tonga’s coastline, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described damage to boats and shops on Tonga’s coastline. The waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.

No casualties have been reported in Tonga, although there are still concerns about residents of some of the small islands near the volcano.

Scientists said they don’t believe the eruption would have a significant impact on Earth’s climate.

Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause temporary global cooling as sulfur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, early satellite measurements indicated that the amount of sulfur dioxide released would have only a minimal global average cooling effect of perhaps 0.01 Celsius (0.02 Fahrenheit), said Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University.

Satellite images showed the spectacular underwater eruption on Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the waters of the South Pacific.

A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent shockwaves around the planet twice, changing atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Large waves were detected as far as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.

Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board of Tonga Cable Ltd., owner of the single cable that connects Tonga to the outside world via Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable is above and inside the coral reef, which can be sharp.

Fonua said a ship would have to pull the cable to assess the damage and then crews would have to repair it. A single break can take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks can take up to three weeks. He added that it was not yet clear when it would be safe for a vessel to venture near the underwater volcano to undertake the work.

A second undersea cable that connects the islands of Tonga also appears to have been severed, Fonua said. However, a local telephone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he added that the lingering ash cloud continued to make even overseas satellite phone calls difficult.

He said Tonga, home to 105,000 people, had been in discussions with New Zealand about getting a second international fiber optic cable to provide a more robust network, but that the country’s isolated location made any long-term solution difficult.

The cable also broke three years ago, possibly due to a ship dragging an anchor. At first, Tongans had no internet access, but limited access was later restored using satellites until the cable was repaired.

Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.

Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.

In a video posted to Facebook, Nightingale Filihia sheltered at her family’s home from a shower of volcanic ash and tiny chunks of rock that darkened the sky.

“It’s really bad. They told us to stay inside and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for people. Everyone froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home. Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.

A complicating factor for any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreak of COVID-19. Ardern said New Zealand military personnel are fully vaccinated and willing to follow all protocols established by Tonga.

Dave Snider, tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was highly unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was at both “humiliating and frightening”.

The US Geological Survey estimated that the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.

Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have brought most people to safety, although she was worried about those who live on the islands closest to the volcano.

“We pray that the damage is only to infrastructure and that people can access higher ground,” she said.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a new small island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.

Terrestrial imaging firm Planet Labs PBC had been monitoring the island for the past few days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how the volcano had shaped the region, creating a growing island off the coast of Tonga.

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Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Kensington, Maryland.

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